(Re)watching Every Episode of Star Trek
According to IMDB, there are 719 episodes of Star Trek if you don’t count Discovery. Every single one of them is in Netflix.
Over the past three years, I’ve been on a mission to watch, or re-watch, every single one of them.
I didn’t start out with this quest in mind. It began with a bid to simply complete my third (or is it my fourth) rewatching of The Next Generation, my introduction to the Star Trek universe back in the 90s. However, TNG led to Voyager, which led to Deep Space Nine and the race was on from there…
The result, while my order of viewing was all over the map, I ended up watching over 500 hours of Star Trek over the course of about three years. While I wouldn’t call it a marathon, it certainly represented a lot of lunch breaks and more than a few evenings.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t trying at times. While this rewatch reminded me of all the great stories Star Trek has to offer, it also reminded me of all of the lows.
While I have much to say about each of the series, I’m opting to at least start with a brief recap of the experience watching them, whether it was my first full viewing, or my fourth.
(Note: The order of conversation will follow my order of viewing, which is chaotic neutral at best. Obviously, this isn’t in the chronology of the series, in any respect.)
Star Trek: The Next Generation
When I think of great science fiction television, Star Trek: The Next Generation, has to be one of the top series of all time, if not the greatest. This is especially true if you omit seasons 1 and 2 from your calculus.
It’s the highest rated Star Trek series in IMDB and for good reason. When TNG was at its best, it produced legendary television. Episodes such as The Inner Light (the flute episode), Darmok, Best of Both Worlds and pretty much any Q episode could sit in a pantheon of great sci fi.
But what was amazing was how great TNG was when it WASN’T at it’s peak. Sure, TNG had its bad episodes, Shades of Gray (Riker’s in a coma so let’s do a clip show), Sub Rosa (Crusher has sex with a ghost) and the aptly named Disaster (how the !@$$ did Troi get in charge?), but one has to stretch to think of them.
The consistency of seasons 3–7 is nothing short of amazing. Sure, seasons 1 and 2 were rough but, on re-watching, they weren’t all bad. They were simply wildly inconsistent, the same way the original Star Trek was. After all, Measure of a Man (Data on trial) and Q Who (first encounter with the Borg) are both second season episodes.
TNG took some time finding its footing, but when it did it produced 5 seasons of some of the best science fiction ever made. It’s so good, it holds up just as well today on third viewing as it did 20 years ago on my first.
Star Trek: Voyager
After finishing TNG, I decided I wanted some “new to me” Star Trek and I knew I had gaps in my Voyager viewing due to how both I and the show were moving around in the late 90s (I started college in 1998).
Voyager is the forgotten stepchild of this era of Star Trek. The show is largely unloved, if it’s remembered at all, and Janeway is considered by many to be the worst Captain in any series.
The attacks on Janeway, to me, feel unwarranted. Sure, there were some episodes where her actions are indefensible, in particular Equinox (where the other Federation ship is powered by aliens), but her decision making is certainly better than Kirk’s, whose own incompetence and stubbornness leads to the plot of many TOS episodes (seriously, go back and rewatch Obsession).
The main feeling I walked away from Voyager with was disappointment. The series premise and early episodes set up so many great long term plots that never materialized.
They are a Federation ship in the delta quadrant but they seem to minimize exploration. The Maqui and Federation crew members never really come into conflict (outside of Worst Case Scenario, which played it out on the holodeck). The Borg never seemed like a real threat to the ship. The Kazon plot goes nowhere fast and is gone completely by season 4. By the show’s end, no one seems to have grown or progressed in any significant way.
The perfect example of this is the photon torpedo problem. Early in the show, they emphasize they only have 38 torpedoes and no way to replace them. For the first few seasons, they religiously count every shot, adding a new layer of weight and tension to their battles.
However, at the end of season 5, they just stopped counting. There wasn’t even an episode where they explained how they gained the ability to create new ones. What had been a great point for drama was just abandoned and we didn’t even get a decent story for our investment.
In the end, Voyager never really committed to any of its plots and, when it finally sputtered to its rushed conclusion, it was simply unsatisfying. It’s wrap up really didn’t have anything to wrap up.
Sure, it had some really great episodes, but it never really reached the heights of TNG, though it sure found some of the lows (Looking at you Threshold).
But hey, we got to see The Rock put the Rock Bottom on Seven of Nine in Tsunkatse, so that’s something.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Of all the series, my opinion of DS9 changed the most on re-watching. When I watched the series during its original run, DS9 was just a quirky, slightly darker also-ran to TNG. However, after re-visiting, DS9 may have taken the title of my favorite Star Trek series.
But while it’s tempting to compare it to TNG, it’s much more useful to compare it to Voyager. If Voyager is what happens when the writers don’t (or can’t) commit to a plot or to character development, Deep Space Nine is what happens when they go all in.
TNG and Voyager were shows meant to be watched once per week with breaks between seasons. DS9 was made for binging. Watching the Dominion War plot evolve, starting with a brief mention of The Dominion in Rules of Acquisition during season two and running to the show’s conclusion, is an amazing thing on a binge watch.
The only DS9 plot that didn’t really connect with me was the Emissary plot. There’s an unwritten rule that says: Any time Star Trek delves into either religion or the supernatural, it sucks. The Emissary plot is not the exception.
Making Sisko a Bajoran religious figure was strange enough. But the plot spirals out of countrol with wormhole aliens, prophecies and then a rushed, unsatisfying conclusion. If the last shot of the final episode had been the signing of the peace treaty, the show would have been stronger for it.
Still, it didn’t weaken the show significantly and, in addition to having the strongest overarching plot of any series, it had some of the best episodes. In the Pale Moonlight (Bringing the Romulans into the war) may well be my favorite Star Trek episode of any series. After re-watching, the philosophical questions in it wrecked me for nearly a week.
Best of all, the station (and the Defiant) are Captained by my current favorite Star Trek Captain: Benjamin Sisko. Sisko is often aptly described as the anti-Picard. He’s an equally-competent leader to Picard, but takes a virtually opposite approach. Where Picard is distant, strategic and refined, Sisko is personable, impulsive, down-to-earth. This makes Sisko more relatable, even if Picard is more of an ideal of who I would like to be.
I’d love to be the guy who drinks earl gray tea hot, quotes Shakespeare and eschews violence, but we all know I’m going to be the guy who downs a beer and punches Q in the face after he talks to much smack.
There’s much more to say about DS9, but this was Star Trek made for the binging era, even if they didn’t know it when they made it that way.
Star Trek: Enterprise
It’s been a long road… getting from there to here…
Enterprise made it four seasons and 98 episodes. However, even all these years later, the first thing many people talk about is the damn theme song.
As a child of the 80s and 90s I love my power ballads and don’t actively hate the song (Though I prefer the Rod Stewart version). That said, I agree with others that it was wrong for a Star Trek theme. If they’d kept the visuals and music but removed the lyrics, it would have been a pretty bold but still Star Trek-y opening (kind of like what Discovery has). However, by turning the theme into a sing-a-long they made it a lightning rod that took away attention from the show itself.
As for that show, it was surprisingly good.
The writers took a big risk setting a 2003 show as a prequel to a 1966 show. Making a show look modern to a 2000s audience while supposedly representing pre-TOS technology was going to be demanding. However, they by in large pulled it off.
The NX-01 looked and felt like a submarine, something that was quite deliberate, and the tech felt “dated” by Star Trek standards, despite modern special effects.
To create a sense of drama, the show centered its two main plots, the Temporal Cold War and the Xindi attack, around alternate futures. Though we have four series of future Star Trek (not countinng Discovery), the events of Enterprise meant that future wasn’t certain.
It worked well overall, but I don’t really understand the Temporal Cold War. Like most plots centered around time travel, it gets very convoluted very quickly. The Xindi plot is very straightforward and felt very engaging. It helps that it started with an attack on earth (even if the attack really doesn’t make sense) and actually has a really satisfying conclusion.
The problem is both of those plots end at the end of the third season and there was a whole season left to go. It didn’t help that the last season had a budget that barely covered catering. All in all, the last season just fell kind of flat and ended in the worst way possible, reducing Captain Archer’s biggest moment to holodeck on the TNG Enterprise.
There was no reason to bring Riker and Troi into that episode. The ending could have stood up well but they neutered it by trying to shoehorn in some familiar faces.
All in all, it was a better ride than it had any business being given the concept, but the studio didn’t have any faith (of the heart) in it by the last season and it really shows.
Star Trek: The Original Series
Well, at this point there wasn’t much more I could do. I’d made it through four of the five completed live action series so I might as well mop up.
I’d always remembered The Original Series as being the one that was forced upon my by my parents. By the time I was watching Star Trek the films for TOS were wrapping up and the series was 25 years old.
While I remembered some episodes fondly, such as Balance of Terror and City on the Edge of Forever, most of my recollection of the show was goofy special effects (they dressed up a dog and pretended it was an alien for Chrissake), Kirk double fist punching aliens and lots of creepy sexual encounters.
But, watching it with adult eyes the series definitely comes across differently. Yes, it has low-budget 1960s special effects, but in many places the model work and set design was very, very good (some of this helped by the remaster, though much of it is not). They really did a lot with very little and many scenes wouldn’t have looked out of place in the later series.
While there was no shortage of fisticuffs (who can forget that comical battle with the Gorn) it wasn’t Batman, which often had three fights per episode. Instead, it had a lot of philosophy (often very heavy handed philosophy) and a lot of technobabble.
One major change for TOS when compared to the other series is that it was a 50-minute episode format, where others were 42-minute. While that may not seem like much, many of the episodes felt drawn out and overlong. They’re stories that would have been better told in a shorter format. A lot of times the padding is just painfully obvious (Looking at you The Deadly Years).
Another is just how many times the crew of the NCC-1701 runs into all-powerful beings. TOS really liked to prod at questions about God and Gods, to the point they seem to run into one every time they go on a survey mission. These, in general, didn’t make for good episodes as they all follow a similar formula: Find out who this God is, discover where they get their power and then learn how to beat them.
That leads into another key problem with the show: How wildly inconsistent it was. The City on the Edge of Forever is one of the greatest episodes of science fiction ever (and probably the best Star Trek time travel episode). The episode before it was The Alternative Factor, an episode so convoluted and stupid that, even after reading three Wikis and two other explanations, I have no idea what the hell happened.
TOS was best when it focused on its people. The Doomsday Machine is a great story about everyone doing what they think is best and it not always working out right. Likewise, Balance of Terror is a great story (somewhat plagiarized from a WW2 film) that features two captains, both great tacticians, trying to outdo one another.
In the end, you can tell that this was meant to be a “Western in Space” and not a hard sci-fi. Molding this into some kind of canon must have been damn near impossible and, after rewatching, I’m impressed it’s held up as well as it has.
Star Trek: The Animated Series
My original plan was to skip The Animated Series. I’d seen only a tiny bit of it and remember not being fond of it. But after finishing The Original Series I realized that I’d put in over 500 hours on Star Trek viewing and this would only add about 10 (22 episodes at 23 minutes apiece). It seemed a waste not to finish.
Right out of the gate, the idea of an animated Star Trek series sounds great. One of the greatest limitations of the series, especially at that point, was the special effects and those don’t come into play when you can draw whatever the hell you want.
That being said, there are a few things to know about the series.
First, it had a budget that was likely scraped together from the couch cushions of Star Trek fans. Second, most of that budget likely went to LSD for the wrtiers’ room. Third, Gene Roddenberry said publicly that he only produced it because he didn’t think there would ever be more Star Trek.
Because of these facts, TAS has a complicated relationship with the canon, having been removed, reintroduced, adopted fully and now somewhat kind of sort of being removed again (maybe some good can come from Discovery).
Basically, TAS is a bizarre animated TV series that has approximately 10 frames of animation per show, plots that were probably pitched by someone saying “Dude… dude… dude… DUUUUUUUDDDDEEEE… what if we… (insert plot)” and it includes both an E.T. knockoff and a furry as part of the bridge crew.
Basically, it’s !@#$ing weird.
To their credit, they got all of the original actors to reprise their roles and did really exploit the format to its full advantage. You can tell at least some of the ideas were ones they had for the live action series but had abandoned due to impracticality. Those are all kind of cool.
However, perhaps the biggest change is the time format. What was a 50-minute show was now being codensed into a 22-minute cartoon? Can you tell a great Star Trek story in 22 minutes? Sure. However, you have to omit a lot of the structure.
But TAS doesn’t do that. They try to work in all of the kinks and challenges but try to resolve them much more quickly. For example, in The Ambergris Element, a plot about violating the religious practices of the planet’s natives was resolved in about 1 minute with 10 lines of dialogue so they could rush to the conclusion. This normally would have been an entire discussion delving into the morals of not doing so to help a civilization facing extinction.
Picking up and resolving challenges like this robs them of their weight. The rushed format makes it feel as if they’re just reacting and as if there are no serious questions being pondered or threats to be feared.
There are exceptions, Yesteryear would have been a great episode in any series (and yet another decent time travel one) but, in general, they kept the volume of challenges with only half the time. This made them seem like minor obstacles to be batted away rather than philosophical and technological quandaries to be weighed.
In the end, this show is a short LSD-fueled run of a show that featured crude animation, questionable voice acting (whose idea was it to let Scotty do 90% of the non-main voices?) and really bizarre, laughable stuff.
It’s entertaining, to be sure, but it’s more Mystery Science Theater 3000 than Star Trek.
Star Trek: Discovery
Discovery isn’t done so that makes talking about it a bit awkward (as of this writing, the second season just debuted and I’m waiting to binge after its completed). Considering where TNG was after it’s first season, saying anything about Discovery at the same point seems cruel.
Still, here are a few thoughts.
Positioning Discovery between Enterprise and TOS was either gutsy or stupid. Right now, I’m leaning toward stupid. In the canon you have over a decade between when the Dominion War ends and when Romulus is destroyed.
Setting something there poses a LOT less risk to canon than setting it between TOS and its prequel (making it a pre-sequel akin to Borderlands?). Sure, Nemesis takes place after The Dominion War, but it’s easier to dance around one movie than four series and nine films.
But where Enterprise tried to show some reverence to the canon (even if it messed it up sometimes) Discovery has been reckless. The new Klingons, the Spore Drive, the uniforms, everything. You can work hard and explain a lot of it, but eventually the logic ship just runs aground.
Still, the show found its feet some by the end of the season and told some pretty good stories. Even though I think the concept of the mirror universe is pretty stupid, the episodes set in it were engaging and I ended up liking the series much better at the end of the season than I did at the start.
The big problem that I have is that it doesn’t “feel” like a Star Trek series. While that seems like a petty complaint, after watching the other series so close together, I can safely say it is a big deal. Every other series felt like a Star Trek series, Discovery just doesn’t.
This was especially bad as it went head-to-head for my attention with The Orville, which despite being a separate show and a comedy felt more like Star Trek than Discovery. Sure, it’s a bit of a cheat having Brannon Braga producing the series and directing some of the episodes, but it works.
For me, the next season will be the one that makes or breaks Discovery. Right now, I’m tepidly hopeful but if the next season disappoints… I’ll probably finish the damn thing anyway. Who am I kidding?
God I’m such a sucker for Star Trek…